Friday, March 14, 2008

The whole thing about my passport.

After September 11, 2001, I never went anywhere without my passport.

It was in whatever bag I was carrying, even if I was just going to the bodega around the corner. I don't know exactly what I thought I'd do with it. I think at first I was carrying it because of the hate crimes and profiling against Middle Eastern New Yorkers and anyone who might look vaguely Middle Eastern (like my sister and I). I thought I might have to prove my citizenship or else chance going to jail. When my friends teased me about it, I'd coolly point out that you never knew when you were going to meet someone that would want to whisk you off to the Caribbean or Paris for a day or two. It was a good cover, and indeed occasionally some barfly would drunkenly beseech me to go to Aspen or Montauk or Hoboken with them, but never anywhere I might have needed my passport to get back from.

After a while, I reasoned that I was carrying it because I might have to leave the country at a moment's notice. If in our incredibly concrete-insulated city enormous buildings could suddenly burst into flames and collapse, anything could happen. If masses of completely silent people could zombie-march over the Brooklyn Bridge covered in ashes, if thousands of "Have You Seen This Person?" posters could plaster every surface in Manhattan, if the absolute audacity of my own city could be deflated by one early-morning clumsy bludgeoning, then I would be prepared for anything. The entire country could abruptly become as uninhabitable as the distant war zones we were used to seeing on the news that we'd suddenly, disturbingly come to resemble. I knew that internment camps are not distant enough history that we are safe from the ignorance that engendered them. Nothing was stable.

There is a noisy and unpleasant whine in my head that does not believe anything has ever been stable, anyway. It has always been there, in my head, ever since I can remember. As a toddler I feared falling more than anything. I feared that if my parents, who seemed very high up, fell, it could only be fatal. I feared that they would fall and die, and leave me paralyzed with grief for the rest of my life, orphaned and useless.

I learned to read as soon as I could, and then I read so much and so quickly my parents were alarmed about eye strain. The more I learned about the world, the more I understood how precarious it is. You could, indeed, die from a fall. You could also die from any number of accidents, gruesomely. Flower shapes could bloom on your skin, in your brain, on the red and orange organs pictured inside your body, and gradually consume you inside-out or outside-in. Or your heart could simply stop working, with no explanation. At church they said God called you when you were ready to go, or when he wanted you to keep him company. At home my parents said not to worry, that they were not going to die. I wasn't entirely buying any of this, yet.

I read emergency guides that told you what to do if you were kidnapped, if you were trapped in quicksand, if you saw a rattlesnake in your path. I read the CPR and Heimlich manuever charts you see in restaurants. I doubted anyone actually turned that blue, and that everyone in the entire universe actually knew that hands at the throat was the universal sign for "I'm choking," but then I had nightmares about blue people strangling, helpless to communicate, and just hoped fervently against logic that everyone could figure the sign out or remember it in time to ask for help.

By the afternoon of September 11, 2001, the noisy whine was screaming in vindication. Nothing was safe; I had been right all along to vigilantly avoid relaxing and feeling secure. My sister and I moved through the quiet, smoky city, looking for her partner, and when we couldn't find her, we walked to my apartment to wait by the phone. A car rolled backwards down a sloping street and I rushed us around another corner in case it exploded--why shouldn't an exploding car be probable? Above us, in the otherwise empty sky, circled a plane that looked like something we'd seen before in war movies--moving south, then returning, over and over. Seeing us cower, a man next to us also looking into the sky--for days the whole city watched the sky--said, reassuringly, "It's an F-16," and then when he saw that we didn't know what that meant, he explained, "It's ours." It's strange to me now that I'd never heard the term F-16 till that day; we heard it so many times in the following weeks. They droned into my dreams: two nights later I fell out of my closet bedroom and found my roommate, still sleepless, in the kitchen. Fogged with dream, I announced that we had to evacuate immediately because another plane had crashed into Lincoln Center, which was a block away from our building. He sent me back to bed, but I remained awake, just in case.

The suddenness of the attack and the sense of violation and instability in the months following clicked into the scared, vigilant whine in my head. The part of me that had always expected and needed to be prepared for catastrophe roared into post-September-11th New York and dropped all apology. Something was validated in a big, bad way. I quit wearing shoes I couldn't run in. I didn't scream when I turned the corner and nearly walked into a machine gun carried by a soldier who looked like a high school student. I rolled my eyes when my then-boyfriend bought me an Israeli army gas mask in case of some kind of air-laden warfare, but I was secretly pleased and studied my frightening mask-wearing visage in the mirror, smelling rubber. I practiced looking inscrutable when my sister and I and one other Indian-looking woman were the only ones selected for a "random" security screening on a commuter flight to DC. My friend G visited from Montreal and wanted to know what I thought about the yellow police tape surrounding various synagogues and temples of Islam; I hadn't even noticed it. It was part of the landscape of chaos that I had found my footing in. And I carried my passport, ready to prove my identity or flee the scene at a moment's notice. Just in case, for years.

Lately though, I have become so complacent that I not only don't carry my passport, I actually let it expire a month or so ago. So I have no passport, no way to run away to Canada or Mexico. I have wondered if this means that I am starting to let go of the whine, which has keened, exhaustingly, in my head for such a constancy of waking and sleeping hours that I can actually remember and count on the fingers of one hand the moments that it was not keening. I wonder if it is weakening its hold on me. Maybe it's being a Californian, or being in real good-for-me grown-up love, or the gradual finding of my own voice.

Tonight, though, I am packing for the trip to LA, for the meeting up of Dad and Jam Guy, and I found myself considering packing my passport before I remembered that it's expired. I know I have had some nerves about this trip, but reverting to my ready-to-flee-the-country MO seems pretty extreme. I'm not even leaving the state. I need to reflect on this more, but right now I'm sleepy and have eight million things to do tomorrow before making the drive north.

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